Fringed by the Adriatic on one side and rugged mountains on the other, Montenegro (the name means "Black Mountain") makes an ideal introduction to Eastern Europe. It's peaceful and safe and is a great destination for solo travellers. Our first timer's guide to Montenegro will help you get your bearings for a trip to this small yet beautiful place.
From stunning scenery and beautiful beaches to thrilling activities and sumptuous food, this bite-sized Balkan country which sits between Europe and Asia offers something for every taste. The beach-studded coastline of this country, which was once a member the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is dotted with small fishing villages, ancient churches, and fortified towns, but the uncontested star of Montenegro’s striking seascape is its UNESCO-recognised Bay of Kotor.
Head inland along winding mountain roads and you’ll find remoter destinations such as the dense bear- and wolf- thronged forests of the Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora’s primeval forest or the Tara Canyon, Europe's Grand Canyon and a popular base for white-water rafting.
Despite adopting the Euro in 2002, Montenegro is still budget-friendly with plenty of great value accommodation options ranging from sobe, the clean simple rooms rented by private house owners, to luxury resorts where rooms, especially outside of the summer season, are surprisingly affordable.
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Food is great value, too and there's a host of traditional dishes to taste. Must tries include meltingly tender smoked prosciutto from the mountain village of Njegusi, the shellfish and prawn dish buzara and the local Vranac wines. If you’re on a tight budget look out for cevabdzinicas: grilled meat shops where you can fill up on beef and pork cevapi sausages for cheap.
Hire cars are relatively inexpensive, too and it’s best to have your own transport if you want to really explore. Although slower and less frequent, there are also buses that travel to most of the main sights, but for panoramic views you can’t beat the slow train which runs between Bar and Belgrade via Podgorica and Skadar lake.
The beautiful Bay of Kotor, known locally as Boka (which just means ‘the bay’) is a water wonderland dotted with ancient churches and medieval and Venetian-era settlements. The best way to explore is to take a boat trip with an outfit like Kotor Bay Tours. Stop offs en route include The Blue Cave, a grotto surrounded by brilliant turquoise waters and Our Lady of the Rocks, an artificial island which, according to legend, was created some five centuries ago after two brothers discovered an ancient Madonna icon on a rock here. Longer boat trips will also stop over at Perast, a tiny atoll described as ‘the Montenegrin Venice’ because of its streets lined with ancient churches and Baroque palaces that were once home to Russian Czars and Venetian Princes.
Back in Kotor town lace up your trainers and hike the 1,355 steps alongside the great wall that once protected the city from invaders, to reach the top of mount Sveti Ivan. Pause to take in the views over the glittering bay far beneath, then head back to explore Kotor town’s tangled web of cobbled streets, lined with honey stone buildings that are home to tiny restaurants, and stores selling everything from sun cream to local fruit brandy rakija and traditional black and red kapa hats.
Back in the bay have lunch at Verige65 – a restaurant with panoramic views of the Verige strait – whose modern take on local dishes includes a delectable prosciutto dish, served with homemade sausage and local cheese. Spend the night at Portonovi resort, an elegant waterfront resort close to the laidback town of Herceg Novi (and some of the bay’s best beaches), which was built to look like a traditional village. Alternatively, head for Hervceg Novi town and bag a budget bed at Guesthouse Tomanovic.
Further along the coast, Budva, known as ‘the Montenegrin Miami’ because of its beautiful (but crowded) beaches and lively (but expensive) nightlife scene, is a good starting point for boat trips to visit pretty St. Nicholas Island and some of the region’s best beaches. An hour or so inland from Budva, Skadar, which is Southern Europe’s largest lake, sits on the border with neighbouring Albania. Also known as Shkodra, Shkodër or Scutari, this vast stretch of water is a haven for migrating birds and rare species, including big beaked Dalmatian pelicans and a host of rare and exotic lizards. The best way to explore is to hop on one of the small fishing boats that shuttle back and forth over the lake’s lily-strewn waters.
From here it’s a few hours drive, or bus ride to Durmitor National Park, home of the spectacular, 1.3km deep Tara Canyon which is the world’s second deepest, right after Arizona's Grand Canyon. High flung capital Zabljak, with its restaurants serving traditional food and its great value sobes makes an ideal base for exploring this wild and lovely region. Whether you choose to swim in the Back Lake’s icy waters, zipline across the Tara Canyon or take an exhilarating white water rafting trip along the Tara River, this is the perfect place to end your first trip through one of Eastern Europe’s most fun and friendly countries.
Top image: Kotor seen from Sveti Ivan fortress © eFesenko/Shutterstock